The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals
Thinking Out of the Box
Actress, Producer and Director
The Gingerbread Players, Forest Hills, NY
Profile by John Kenrick
Success brings its own set of challenges. Long-running amateur companies not have to face the reality of personnel changes, but of taking risks and introducing new ideas to an already productive formula.
Louise Guinther has been involved with The Gingerbread Players since their inception 35 years ago. "It began as a project for the junior choir of St. Luke's Church," she says, "an annual treat for the kids. After a special one-night production of Amahl & The Night Visitors in 1971, my parents helped found the group the following year. We all started together because my sister and I were in the choir. My mother had a directing degree from Yale, and my father had done amateur theatre too. After Amahl, we started with a dramatic version of The Nutcracker, using a mixture of kids and adults in the cast."
A team player from an early age, Guinther was happy to help out distributing programs. Over time, she worked her way up from chorister to leading player, and is now helps to run the organization.
"Because the Gingerbread Players began with a very small core group," Guinther says, "there was no 'box' to think in, so we were always willing to consider new ideas. The initial focus was on shows that appealed to family audiences, allowing children and adults to share the stage. Maybe because it is all predicated on the kids, the grown-up end of it is removed from diva behavior. We were lucky enough to keep finding new, talented participants, and we eventually became a moneymaking activity for the church. We never expected to become profitable!"
When the junior choir was disbanded, the Gingerbread Players lived on as an independent program. According to Guinther, "By that time, we had a base group, and they keep bringing new friends. We also had some parishioners who were willing to take part, and that helped. We open it to anyone who wants to take part. Any kid who comes in, we find a place in the cast of them."
Putting large casts on a stage smaller than most living rooms requires inventive thinking. "There is almost no wing space," Guinther says, "so doing multi-set shows like The Music Man poses a real challenge. We did it by painting a main street backdrop right on the back wall of the stage area, which we augmented by adding small set pieces - bunting for the Fourth of July, bookcases for the library. And we recycle materials whenever possible. Those same bookcases showed up in the following year's production of Shaw's Arms and the Man, with most of the books painted out. Our costume designer is a genius at adapting basic costume pieces to fit different periods and styles, and the church's annual rummage sale is a great resource."
Over time, the adults in the group wanted a chance to expand the program. Guinther says, "We genuinely came to love each other, and these shows were a wonderful excuse to work together week after week. So we decided to add a second production to the annual program, one that would allow us to perform more sophisticated plays. We put on Shakespeare's Midsummers Night's Dream with adults in key roles and kids playing the fairies and young lovers. It worked, and we found ourselves putting on a family musical every Spring, followed by a play every Autumn."
Change is not always easy. When one of the key co-founders of the Gingerbread Players died, it forced the group to reevaluate their management model. "Decision making had always been by committee," Guinther says, "but it was very casual, like friends getting together for coffee. Now the process is more formal, but the sense of camaraderie is still there. So far, we've managed to keep the old and new guard working together."
It can be particularly difficult getting publicity for a small community theatre in one of New York City's outer boroughs. "With so much going on in this town," she says, "it's hard to let people know you're putting on a show. Even neighborhood newspapers won't give you coverage unless you buy ad space, and that's a problem when you're on a tight budget. Word of mouth is still our best source of new audiences."
Guinther has taken on a multitude of production jobs over the years, serving as actor, producer, director, set painter - and in whatever combination is needed from year to year. "When I'm directing I hate the rehearsal process, when the weight of the world is on your shoulders. When I'm just acting, I love the whole process, rehearsals too. The only part I always hate is when a production ends."
What keeps Guinther and her family involved in the Gingerbread Players after so many years? "It's a joy for us to do this," she says. "There aren't many opportunities these days for kids and grownups to work together and communicate as equals, building rapport between generations. I can't think of a better way to invest our time and energy. It's like one of our longtime members says it. We're not just another community theatre; we're the Gingerbread Players. We're a family."